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When it comes to racism in cricket, the ECB is the accused not the judge | Barney Ronay

Oh no you don’t, Tom Harrison. Hold it right there, the England and Wales Cricket Board. Drop the mask of simpering piety. Lose the grave, troubled look. There is no doubt that English cricket’s continuing, historic problem with racism is a resigning issue for someone, that it speaks to both a sickly culture and a failure of regulation.

But before we start apportioning that blame, let us be clear on the roles here. The ECB does not get to act surprised at this, to get away with flaming some flunkies, dropping the toxic Yorkshire brand, throwing its hands up in shock. The ECB is not the judge or the court clerk or whatever role it is currently trying to assume. It is instead the accused.

The news here is not that Yorkshire County Cricket Club, a huge portion of the ECB’s parish, alma mater to the current England head coach, captain and elite pathway coach, is institutionally racist. The story is that Yorkshire CCC is still institutionally racist. This is not new information. The ECB has been presented with this problem repeatedly. It has failed, repeatedly, to act.

Shall we pick a date? How about June 1998 when 56 MPs led, gawd bless him, by the vigorous backbencher Jeremy Corbyn, put forward a parliamentary motion calling for action from the ECB over research that revealed “a culture of racial exclusion, racial stereotyping and … racial abuse of black and Asian cricket players”.

Ring any bells? Does it sound, for example, like the exact words used by people like John Holder, Michael Holding, Michael Carberry and Azeem Rafiq in the decades since?

More dates. A year later the ECB drummed up its first Great Big Anti Racism Report, with Tim Lamb, Harrison’s predecessor as CEO, announcing that “complacency is not acceptable”. And yet six years on the motto “Clean Bowl Racism” had somehow failed to cleanse the organs of the national summer sport, to the extent that former Bradford North MP Terry Rooney spoke in parliament about “the deep-rooted embedded racism in Yorkshire County Cricket Club”.

Gary Ballance with Azeem Rafiq following a Clydesdale Bank 40 match in August 2012.
Gary Ballance with Azeem Rafiq following a Clydesdale Bank 40 match in August 2012. Photograph: Alex Whitehead/SWPIX.com/Shutterstock

Yorkshire CCC president Robin Smith demanded an apology, citing the fact that players like Yorkshire’s own Ismail Dawood were at the edge of the first team. Yes, the same Dawood who suffered racist abuse in county cricket and would later sue the ECB for racial discrimination. The same Dawood who played with Harrison at Northants. Small world!

So no, Mr Harrison you do not get to act surprised now that sponsorship contracts are being cancelled, hot buttons pressed and MPs demanding an audience. The answer does not lie in feigned shock, or indeed in getting tough on Gary Ballance and tough on the causes of Gary Ballance. Because this is what we have in front of us right now, the chief executive shimmy, that familiar dance away from responsibility.

Ballance will take his share, and rightly so. He was old enough to know what he was doing. He clearly has his own issues to deal with. But how far does this take us? Here we have the England Test captain’s flatmate and barbecue banter pal, two years a centrally contracted ECB employee, regularly using prima facie racist language, something the Yorkshire-based England coach and the Yorkshire-based England captain have yet to condemn, or explain exactly how this was allowed to continue. And please, don’t talk about processes and gagging instructions. The actual harm lies in being silent.

Yorkshire’s coaching hierarchy will take their share too. After Carberry spoke out last year Martyn Moxon said he had “not been involved in any dressing room or any club that’s had any dealings with racism whatsoever”. Apart from the one exception – his stint playing for Griqualand West in apartheid South Africa. Yes. Apart from that! What is a culture anyway? What is an institution? How does it become set?

Michael Vaughan has faced his own instant reckoning. He seemed genuinely stunned to be mentioned in Rafiq’s evidence, although not so stunned he felt the need to go along and speak to the investigation.

Vaughan is a fascinating figure in all this, an embodiment of a kind of generational blankness. Here we have a BBC correspondent so unversed in these issues he was prepared to write a column about Jofra Archer this year that read like a media studies degree list of stereotypes and harmful tropes, from the “whispers” Archer “does not love Test cricket” to the need to “look a little bit more interested”, through “gaming consoles … natural ability … frustrating … lethargic … not strong enough” to “I do not know Jofra”. Right. But we know the type, eh!

There are windows that can be opened rather than closed, ways of understanding. Alternatively you can choose not to listen. Does stupidity get you a pass? Is ignorance a defence? In Vaughan’s case he does at least present watertight credentials.

Azeem Rafiq, pictured in 2014, has been invited to give evidence to a parliamentary select committee on 16 November.
Azeem Rafiq, pictured in 2014, has been invited to give evidence to a parliamentary select committee on 16 November. Photograph: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com/Shutterstock

And yet for all this distraction, it is the ECB that has full sight of all this, that presides over that culture, that has been repeatedly warned down the years; but which, as an essentially commercial, entity, still seems to see this is an unfortunate comms issue to be managed and massaged.

There are few more depressing notes to the last week than the opening to the ECB’s statement on Yorkshire’s investigation which began by noting “damage to the reputations of the game” – as opposed to the fact the game itself is left in in shreds by this, that people are genuinely hurt.

It is a comms strategy approach seen last year in the eddies of the Black Lives Matter movement, when suddenly the ECB began to find sympathetic projects to throw money at, when the England team went from wearing a BLM logo, to T-shirts with uplifting phrases, when the Test captain, Root, best friends with Ballance and a former teammate of Rafiq, was wheeled out to say things about “making our game more diverse” and “making everyone feel comfortable playing cricket”.

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Only two things are certain in the current confusion. First: Azeem Rafiq is a hero. He will be attacked and abused. Parts of his evidence, offered through a veil of hurt, will be shrieked over and picked away at. He will have to be twice as as good at making people listen. But perhaps the most interesting part of Vaughan’s own mea non culpa was his words on Rafiq as a young player. “He thought out of the box and that excited me. He got Yorkshire going. He was full of energy and buzz.” Well, he was right about that. Rafiq has got Yorkshire going. That energy has not gone to waste. It might ultimately do some good.

The second thing is structural. Sajid Javid was right first time this week when he suggested the ECB is “not fit for purpose”. But then, this model was always a punt, a 25-year experiment in how to run cricket based around TV rights and the England team.

Other things have been neglected along the way: the wider mission, the need to see more than just a commodity to be harvested. In Harrison, a marketeer and a salesman, the ECB probably has the figurehead it deserves right now. But sport must be more than this. It is time for a major regearing of the whole listing ship.

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